My sister-in-law reads a couple of books a week--and I'm in awe.
It's not as though she has endless empty hours to fill. Yet while juggling kids, husband and career, she somehow finds time to curl up with a book every night.
How, I wonder, does she do it?
In our household, it's different. There are books everywhere, on night stands and shelves, on chairs and in piles on the floor, but most of them are unread.
A bookmark here and there betrays their owner's touching optimism that all these books will someday be read.
I never seem to have enough time to read.
Oh, I read : three newspapers, Rolling Stone, the New Yorker, Harper's, People, Vanity Fair, National Geographic, American Journalism Review . . . and whatever else appears in the mailbox.
But I don't read enough books.
Reduced to leading a vicarious intellectual life, I scan the book reviews in the back pages of Time or USA Today to find out what everyone else is reading.
And so, without having actually read it, I can tell you what "The Hot Zone" is about (apes, a deadly virus), where it places on the bestseller list (way up there) and whether it has a movie deal (yes). Someday (I promise, I swear) I'll find the time to read it.
It wasn't always this way.
I read voraciously in high school and college. Even while maintaining a heavy academic reading load, I always had a novel going on the side. Each new book held the promise of adventure. As I cracked it open and smoothed back the pages, I was embarking on a voyage of discovery--and I was seldom disappointed.
I wasn't alone. My friends and I traded book suggestions, listing and then revising our lists of favorite authors.
When I graduated from college, I promised myself I'd always keep reading good books. Not for me the stultifying life of middle-aged couch potatoes glued to the boob tube. I was determined to break the mold.
Standing at the threshold of middle age, I have a lot more sympathy for the couch potatoes. What I didn't understand when I was 22 is that life gets very busy.
You start a career, get married, have kids, buy a home and pretty soon you're scrambling to remember who you are and where you're supposed to be.
And you want to stay current and hip, even as the culture mutates at warp speed. No one wants to be left behind, oblivious to the latest scandals and trends.
So we tune into "E.T." and "ER," CNN and "NYPD Blue." Godlike in our omniscience, we comprehend the nuance of Nirvana, the ongoing O.J. orgy and the wherefore of Whitewater. Our kids prattle about Pogs, Power Rangers and purple dinosaurs, and we actually know what they're talking about.
Meanwhile books keep accumulating. I see them sale-priced or in secondhand stores and submit to the urge to buy. I'm sent review copies from publicists, and I receive gifts from friends. They beg to be read: works of fiction and poetry, anthropology, history, true crime, biography, social criticism, Eastern religion.
I often dream of taking a vacation where I wouldn't go anywhere, do anything or see anyone. I'd just read. I'd read over breakfast and through lunch. Maybe I'd take a nap in the afternoon, but then I'd start reading again and continue late into the evening. I'd read until the books gave out or I just plain couldn't take it anymore.
In real life those books just sit there. Guilt-ridden, I imagine them glaring reproachfully. "Read me," they cry in shrill, urgent voices.
Some evenings, I buckle down. I select a book and settle back with a blissful sigh to read. But life intervenes: My wife tries to engage me in conversation, or my daughter starts sleepwalking. Perhaps the dog needs to be taken outside. More often than not, I simply find myself nodding off and realize I can't recall the paragraph I've just read.
On the memorable occasion when I do turn the last page, I'm giddy with relief. This book, like the jersey of a star athlete, can finally be retired, consigned to its permanent spot on a bookshelf.
I suppose I could just learn to live with the situation. Why be so achievement-oriented? After all, what matters is not how many books we read but what we get out of them. So what if the books are piling up--who's keeping track?
Every book left unread is a world undiscovered and, even worse, a challenge unmet.
With the limited leisure time available I realize I face a choice: to read, which requires some attention, patience and imagination, or to plug into the virtually graphic sound bite-interactive media. Hard versus easy--what an attractive choice. But doesn't life teach us that the things we work for are usually more rewarding than those that fall into our lap?
I can stay hooked on cable, glossy magazines and a frantic, endless stream of entertainment news, or I can slow down, take a deep breath and read a book.
Some self-help affirmations seem in order: I don't have to watch "Seinfeld." I needn't succumb to the urge to pop the new Pearl Jam CD into the home entertainment system. I can refrain from prowling the Internet.
I can, in short, choose to be hopelessly out of touch--an anachronism.
But at least I'll have time to finish that book.